Peninsula tries to dodge the bullet train

A train of Peninsula officials and residents is gathering steam over plans the statewide bullet train project will include raised tracks that will run through their communities, splitting them and hurting their economic vitality.

Officials at the California High-Speed Rail Authority argue decisions about the final design of the $45 billion project won’t be made until after an environmental review. Draft environmental documents for the project, which would speed passengers between San Francisco and Anaheim in about 2½ hours, are scheduled to be released in December.

But a $1 billion application for federal planning money by the authority references an aerial structure.

So, San Mateo County cities have become more vocal about running the trains on raised berms or other aerial structures along the Caltrain rail corridor. They say this would be an eyesore and equivalent to a freeway running through town. Many city officials want the train routed underground, possibly in a trench, which would be more expensive.

In the past two weeks, city councils in Burlingame, Belmont and Atherton approved letters to federal officials asking them to deny the rail authority’s Aug. 5 application for the federal grant.

“Twenty-five percent of our people live east of the tracks and it would essentially divide us between east and west Burlingame,” Burlingame Mayor Cathy Baylock said.

Belmont City Councilwoman Coralin Feierbach said city staff members say the four-track structure through her town would be up to five stories tall, “which is really unacceptable for our city.”

But high-speed rail and Caltrain officials say the funding application only shows a potential design. The final orientation, which could include below-ground sections, won’t be decided until after the environmental review.

“I defend their right to pursue the alternatives that they prefer,” said Rod Diridon, a board member for the authority. “At the same time, I abhor the idea of them giving up what might be billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs for our construction employees, of which 30 percent are unemployed on the Peninsula.”

Meanwhile, Redwood City, which had been relatively quiet and cooperative with the authority, wrote a pointed letter to a high-speed rail official, criticizing an authority report that shows only an aerial option for their city. Mayor Jeff Ira called the “out-of-hand dismissal” of underground options for Redwood City “astonishing,” but said the city will still work with the authority.

Diridon said many communities statewide want the train to be underground, but said the authority simply can’t afford to go underground everywhere. He urged Peninsula cities to give input during the environmental review.

The Peninsula has long been at the forefront of concern over the 800-mile bullet train project, even before 53 percent of California voters — and 61 percent on the Peninsula — approved $9.95 billion in bond funding in November 2008 with Proposition 1A.

Menlo Park and Atherton sued in August 2008, challenging the decision to route the train up the Peninsula rather than the East Bay. After a judge upheld the route, the cities petitioned to re-open the lawsuit. But Monday, a judge denied that request.

Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said the cities’ actions in opposition to the federal funding is “premature” because the application does not establish a final design.

Hill said the funding could bring benefits including helping to electrify Caltrain, a $1.2 billion endeavor that is counting on funding from the high-speed project.

“There’s concern, and I think there’s legitimate concern, but I think we have to take the issues one at a time and work through them,” Hill said.

Other cities, like San Mateo, have taken a less adversarial stance. Mayor John Lee said his is concerned about raised tracks in downtown, but said a trench there “is still an option, so we’re holding out hope and working with [the authority].”

Lee disagrees with cities opposing the federal funding application.

“It’s got to be built right, but to ask the government to do that, I think that’s just terrible,” Lee said.

sbishop@sfexaminer.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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